Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bad SaaS nearly killed my fantasy football league

My fantasy football league has survived an NFL strike, pre-Internet scorekeeping, and 30 years of trash talk. But we were nearly sacked this season by lousy software.

A few years ago our league moved away from manually tabulating results. We got tired of checking the newspaper on Monday, Tuesday and sometimes Friday mornings, calculating scores with a calculator, updating the standings, adding the league Commissioner's colorful commentary, and mailing it out via U.S. Postal Service. (I did mention this league has been around for 30 years, right?)

We moved into the modern world with a software-as-a-service (SaaS) application that automatically keeps track of rosters, scoring and standings. We chose this particular web-based fantasy football league management application mostly for its simplicity. It had enough functionality for our purposes and, more important, it was easy to use. It was perfect for guys like me that spend less then 3 minutes per week on it, and only for 16 weeks per year. We've even been willing to pay an annual fee for the application to avoid the advertising clutter that comes with the “free” services.

Don't forget who you're selling to and why they buy from you

Apparently, our SaaS provider forgot about who they were selling to and why we were buying. Sometime in between last season and this one, they larded up their application with non-essential functions and a cluttered user interface. Lots of radio buttons and drop-down menus, a smattering of drag-and-drop, and an array of timers and alarms that didn't seem connected to any particular action.

Which brings me to our league's near-death experience. All these changes made it extremely difficult for us to conduct our player draft for the season. Only through extraordinary patience, an exhaustive search of the site’s FAQs, and lots of trial & error, did we finally complete the process... just moments before the start of the season.

Keep it simple and avoid surprises

Listen up, SaaS providers!

1. Don't load your application with lots of bloat-ware that most people don't use. One of the reasons people buy SaaS applications is because they're easy to learn and easy to use.

2. Keep user interfaces simple and easy to navigate. Avoid needless clutter. This is especially true for applications that are used only occasionally.

3. Avoid wholesale changes to the user interface. Make changes gradually. The SaaS delivery model makes smaller, more frequent releases practical.

4. If you are going to make major changes, provide your customers ample notice beforehand. Customers don't always like surprises.

5. Think about offering guidance to your customers on how to navigate the new interface or use the new features. Provide a short instructional video, for example.

6. Stay in touch with your customers. Listen to what they want and pay attention to what they do. The ability to monitor user behavior is one of the great advantages of SaaS.

A bad user interface is bad for business. If you make your product hard to use, you should expect lower revenues, a longer sales cycle, higher support costs, and lower retention.

An accessible user interface doesn't mean limited functionality

I'm not saying that you should omit necessary functionality. But if you think high functionality requires a complicated user interface, think again. At a Mass Innovation event earlier this month, I saw a sophisticated screen-sharing application, JoinMe, with a control panel that looks like something from an old cassette recorder. They called it “ridiculously simple,” and it was.

I’m happy to report that we did navigate our way through the SaaS provider's poor user interface and our Creep Football League lives on for another season. It’s too early to tell how my team, the Out-of-Staters, will fare, but we’re already looking at new SaaS solutions to manage the league.


A post-script to this story. A few days after I published this post, Constant Contact, a SaaS provider I work with to publish a monthly newsletter, provided an excellent example of how to notify customers in advance of changes to the user interface.

Dear Peter,

As we told you recently, we've improved the editing tool that lets you create and format your email newsletters. You should see it in your account in the next few days.

Here are some things you should know beforehand:

Check out the tutorial and FAQ about the improvements so you can get a jump on using them. Important! Be sure to read our recommendation about copying some of your campaigns in the blue box to the right.

It looks a lot like the previous editor, so it should feel familiar to you. It's now just easier to use.

Just in case, we've set up a special dedicated support line for you to call if you have questions about copying your campaigns or using the editor. That number is 800-275-3019.

Again, you will have the new editor in your account very soon. Thank you for your patience as we bring this new improvement to you, and thank you for being our customer. We're here to help you get up to speed with a better way to build your emails.

Important note: Older browsers do not support some of the technologies used in the updated editor. For the best experience, if using IE or Firefox, please upgrade your browser to the latest version.

The Constant Contact Team

Monday, September 13, 2010

SaaS let's you see where you're going

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently passed legislation prohibiting texting while driving. I’m hoping they’ll soon outlaw texting while walking.

I just came back from a short, but harrowing drive that took me past our town’s high school, just after the end of the school day. The scene reminded me of old episodes of Mr. Magoo - kids fixated on the small screens of their mobile phones, thumbing away furiously on the mini-keypad, while wandering obliviously across heavily-trafficked intersections.

On behalf of all my fellow parents and drivers, I wanted to yell, “Look up! There’s a real world out here, and if you’re not careful, it can really hurt.”


The same advice applies to marketers. You need to look up from the screen and talk to customers and prospects to understand what’s really going on. It can be too easy to focus entirely on what's happening inside your company. I know; I've been there. But as one particularly useful marketing course I've taken explained, “NIHITO”: “Nothing interesting happens in the office.”

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) should make it easier for marketers to avoid this hazard and closely observe customers’ behavior. Because customers are using the application online, it’s possible for marketers and others to see exactly what they’re doing. Though you need to be careful about observing individual behavior, you can see, in aggregate, which features customers are using and which are they avoiding. You can see periods of peak demand, identify particular kinds of users, and see other useful patterns. Along with whatever other analytic tools you're using, this information on product usage can be extremely useful. Don’t ignore it.

Executives at companies that have made the transition from an on-premise application to a SaaS solution point out that one of the most valuable benefits they’ve gained is a better understanding of their customers’ behavior and needs. They have established a much closer, ongoing relationship and a built-in feedback loop. They can much more easily track what's working and what's not.

The result is better focused product development, more attentive customer service, and more effective marketing. For the business, it means greater efficiency, lower customer acquisition costs, and higher renewals.

It also means you’re less likely to make mistakes. Or if you do make a misstep, at least you’ll see where you’re headed before you stumble into real danger.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

SaaS marketing lessons from the New York Yankees

Connecticut has no major league baseball team of its own, so it splits its loyalties between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. The boundary between Red Sox Nation and the Yankee Universe meanders through the state in a fuzzy line that runs roughly northwest from Old Saybrook to Canaan. I grew up on the New York side of the boundary, and am still a devoted Yankees fan… though I’ve lived in Boston for more than 25 years.

This long-standing dedication explains my recent pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium. (That, and the fact that getting tickets to see the Yankees play the Red Sox in Fenway Park in Boston is about as easy as securing a seat on the space shuttle.) Joined by two Red Sox fans (my son wearing his Youkilis jersey!), an Oriole fan and a fellow Yankee fan, I drove to the Bronx to see the Yankees play the Detroit Tigers in a day game.

I came back with a sunburn on my nose, a renewed appreciation for the new Yankee Stadium and – surprise - a couple lessons that are useful for software-as-a-service (SaaS) marketers.

Market the entire experience

Not being particularly familiar with the Bronx, I was worried about parking on game day. Not to worry. Immediately upon buying my tickets online, I was directed to a site to make parking arrangements. It automatically recognized the date we’d be attending a game, presented a selection of parking lots adjacent to the stadium, and allowed me to reserve and pay for a guaranteed parking spot.

Along with the bar-coded reserved parking permit, came driving directions, relieving me of my second concern: how do I get there?

And I received a reminder about parking and directions in an email the day before the game.

Someone within the Yankee organization has actually thought through the entire fan experience. It’s much more than the game that goes on between the foul lines. It extends into the parking lots and up the Major Deegan Expressway.

SaaS marketers should think the same way. The user’s experience with their solution is much broader than the features and functions that they’ve built into the product. It extends to the way the solution is sold, deployed, accessed, configured, supported, upgraded, and renewed. SaaS providers should market all of those benefits - the entire customer experience - as part of their value proposition.

Establish an on-going relationship

The day after the game, I received a “Thank you and Game Recap” email from the Yankees. It included the box score, links to video highlights, and a schedule of upcoming games. They also asked for feedback on my experience.

Lesson two for SaaS marketers: Stay in touch with your customers. Loyal, connected customers will provide useful input on product enhancements, serve as more valuable references and advocates, and will be more likely to renew their subscriptions.

By the way, the Yankees beat the Tigers that day, 11-5.